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Vets sue to have Royal Oak memorial site decided by voters in November

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News

Royal Oak — The battle over the proposed relocation of a veterans memorial has landed in court amid claims of illegal actions and voter suppression.

A group of veteran organizations and city residents filed suit Tuesday in Oakland County Circuit Court seeking to have the site of the memorial decided by voters in November.

VFW members, from left, Jim Muys of VFW Post 334, Gerald Gorski  of the VFW National Council 2019-2023, Frank Flores of VFW Post 1340 and Chris Templeton of VFW Post 1669 gather at the Royal Oak Veterans Memorial in Royal Oak on Jan. 8, 2021.

In recent months, critics of the relocation plan, including several veterans organizations, have written letters, objected at commission meetings and collected nearly 900 petition signatures seeking to keep the memorial at its current location beside the public library.

But in the past month, City Clerk Melanie Halas, after first verifying and certifying 872 signatures for a petition seeking a citywide vote — well over the 5% of voters in the last municipal election needed — reversed herself, saying she had been advised of legal mandates that rendered the initiative petition "legally insufficient."

The Tuesday lawsuit argues according to the City's Charter Halas' role is strictly "ministerial" and limited to verifying the number of signatures needed on the petition.

Under the charter, if sufficient signatures are filed, the City Commission has 20 days to adopt the proposed ordinance or place the issue on the next citywide ballot in November to be decided by voters. The lawsuit contends the city did neither. 

The suit was filed on behalf of Save the Veterans Memorial, American Legion Post No. 253, Veterans of Foreign Wars Acorn Post No 1669 and three Royal Oak registered voters: William Berado, Wallis May Andersen and William E. Harrison.

"This needs to be corrected and those monuments need to be protected," said Harrison, a longtime city resident who was on the Downtown Development Authority in 2007 when the memorial was moved to its current location.

"These (monuments) have been kicked around for years," Harrison said. "The current spot was supposed to be written 'in perpetuity,' which means forever. Now they have interpreted that to mean the space it sits on, not the actual memorial. If you accept that, it can be moved over and over again."

The suit targets Mayor Michael Fournier, all six Royal Oak commissioners, Halas and City Manager Paul Brake. Royal Oak City Attorney Anne McClorey McLaughlin confirmed late Tuesday that she accepted the complaint on behalf of the city and all of the named defendants.

"I will have no further comment at this time," she said. 

The veteran groups are asking Oakland Circuit Judge Daniel O'Brien to order the city to comply with its charter and place the matter on the November ballot.

"We have asked for an emergency expedited hearing to get this moving forward," said attorney George Googasian, who filed the complaint on the veterans' behalf. "These poor guys are stunned. They felt they had done everything by the book with gathering of signatures and filing them." 

"The city might want to argue some fine points, which is their right and could have been done by filing their own lawsuit," he added. "But you just don't stop something out of hand like this. And it's not (the clerk's) job to do that."

Googasian said he hoped to be before O'Brien on the matter "sometime next week."

The city has planned a Centennial Commons area to replace the old city hall and police station. Those plans have involved eliminating old buildings and surface parking spaces and selling off land to be used for a hospital office building and caused controversy in the suburb of about 60,000 residents. Some opponents have argued city planners are destroying the small-town charm of Royal Oak's business district. 

Part of the Centennial Commons plan calls for moving the memorial 40 feet southeast toward Troy Street. Those favoring the move said it will benefit anyone visiting the memorial and also keep it safe from bicycles, skateboarders and others passing through or using the park.

Critics argue the relocation will mean less space and more noise from the nearby street, Farmers Market and new city hall and police station.

Veterans organizations also have claimed they've been excluded from the plans and decision-making process.

Last week, The News reported veterans groups informed the mayor and city commissioners that their presence at the annual Memorial Day parade would not be welcomed and urged them to stay away.

Commissioners Sharlan Douglas and Pat Paruch have said they plan to attend the Monday event as they have in past years. Neither could immediately be reached for comment Tuesday.

Halas has repeatedly had her aides refer all questions concerning the petitions to the city attorney's office.

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